Stupid and trashy, but inadvertently amusing exactly because of those qualities, The Betsy was adapted from one of Harold Robbins’ shamelessly eroticized potboiler novels. Like Jackie Collins and Jacqueline Susann, Robbins made a mint writing sleazy books about rich people screwing each other over (and just plain screwing), so anyone expecting narrative credibility and/or thematic heft is looking in the wrong place.
That said, The Betsy delivers the type of guilty-pleasure nonsense that later dominated nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, along with some R-rated ogling of celebrity skin. And the cast! Great actors slumming in this garbage include Jane Alexander, Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and the legendary Laurence Olivier. They’re joined by young beauties Kathleen Beller, Lesley-Anne Down, and Katharine Ross, all whom disrobe to some degree; Beller’s memorable skinny-dip scene helped make this flick a regular attraction on cable TV in the ’80s.
The turgid story revolves around Loren Hardeman (Olivier), an auto-industry titan who rules a fractious extended family. Now semi-retired and confined to a wheelchair, Hardeman hires maverick racecar designer/driver Angelo Perino (Jones) to build a new car with terrific fuel efficiency, because Hardeman wants to leave as his legacy a “people’s car” like the Volkswagen Beetle. This plan ruffles the feathers of Hardeman’s grandson, Loren Hardeman III (Duvall), who wants to get the family’s corporation out of the money-losing car business. As these warring forces jockey for control over the company’s destiny, with Loren III’s college-aged daughter, Betsy (Beller), caught in the middle, old betrayals surface.
It turns out Hardeman the First became lovers with the wife (Ross) of his son, Loren II, driving the younger man to suicide. This understandably left Loren III with a few granddaddy issues. There’s also a somewhat pointless romantic-triangle bit involving jet-setter Lady Bobby Ayres (Down), who competes with Betsy for Peroni’s affections. Suffice to say, the story is overheated in the extreme, with characters spewing florid lines like, “I love you, Loren, even if I have to be damned for it,” or, “I always knew it would be like this, from the first time I saw you.”
John Barry’s characteristically lush musical score adds a touch of class, Duvall somehow manages to deliver a credible dramatic performance, and Alexander is sharp in her small role. However, Beller, Down, Jones, and Ross coast through the movie, trying (in vain) not to embarrass themselves. As for Olivier, he’s outrageously bad. Hissing and/or screaming lines in an inept Midwestern accent, Olivier has no sense of proportion, playing every scene with such intensity that his work reaches the level of camp. Especially since Olivier was still capable of good work at this late stage of his life (see 1974’s Marathon Man), it’s depressing to watch him flounder.
The Betsy: LAME